Building the better bomb:
The development of Laser Guided Munitions
By Shelby G. Spires
Locked away in an archive, a 1965 aerial photograph tells
the story of a thousand misses, a thousand sorties and a thousand personal stories of horror in the quest to drop the Ham Rung, or Dragon's Jaw, Bridge in Than Hoa, North Vietnam. At the height of the Vietnam War,
the bridge stood defiantly against the technological might of a nation which could orbit spaceships around the earth, but could not manage to bullseye a bomb on a French built bridge 10,000 miles away in Southeast
The stark black and white photo shows a bridge, a river and thousands of water filled craters in the ground -- missed bombs -- made in the attempt to drop the bridge. The effort
had been costly in terms of aircrews and aircraft lost, and yet the Dragon's Jaw, as bridge was nicknamed, still remained open to traffic. The bridge was one of hundreds of targets over Southeast Asia which were
either too well defended to bomb accurately or protected by Washington due to fears over civilian deaths that may result from a stray bomb.
The problems weren't due to any lack of effort on the part of
American aircrews in 1965. That the North Vietnamese prison were quickly filling up with pilots, navigators and weapons system operators, attest to their courage. Difficulties with bombing were quickly
identified from Thailand to Washington, aircrews flying sorties over Southeast Asia didn't have the proper tools for the job.
F-105 "Thunderchief" pilot Nick Lacey knew there was a
problem. He flew a fighter-bomber designed for nuclear strike against targets in Europe, but used it as the backbone of the American strategy to attack targets in the jungles and plains of Southeast Asia.
Loaded up with fat World War II iron bombs, Lacey flew the F-105 on strikes against well protected, entrenched targets during Operation Rolling Thunder -- the three year bombing campaign designed to force the
North Vietnamese to the peace table.
"For what it was designed for 'The Thud' was a great aircraft. Get low, fly in below the enemies defenses and loft a bomb -- an atomic bomb more than
likely -- and leave the area. But for dive bombing small targets like trucks and even bridges in Vietnam ... it was difficult. It just wasn't designed for that," the retired Air Force colonel said.
The accuracy problems cost the American military in the terms of dead and imprisoned aircrews and lost aircraft, but it also created the vicious circle of overkill. Because leaders in
Washington couldn't be certain a target had been destroyed, they required multiple sorties back to the same place to expend ordnance on phantom structures. "I remember going back to targets in
North Vietnam a few times to drop bombs on something that wasn't there. Light, shadows and angle of sight had created an illusion on photo reconnaissance that there was something
left, and there was nothing there. We were just going up north for no reason," Lacey said. "We had to face the (Surface-to-Air-Missiles) and ground fire all over again for a
target that probably had been obliterated days before."
The military needed a weapon to keep airmen out of range of ground fire and one accurate enough to cut out needless
trips back to a target which was already destroyed. The need was a precision guided munition which was safe, cheap and easy to use.
Leaders in the Pentagon had a problem of their own, one of
denial. It would take a Texas Instruments engineer, a laser light scientist in Alabama, a head strong Air Force colonel in Florida and a lot of crazy ideas to convince Washington that
American aircrews couldn't hit a bullseye with their bombs and a solution was needed.
"The Air Force didn't have a bombing problem. Or that's
what they would tell you. It was all bureaucratic stuff. The guys over there dropping the bombs knew there was a bombing problem, and people here in the states knew there
was a bombing problem. But trying to fix it meant admitting there was a problem. It was crazy," the man who headed the development team of the first effective laser guided munition
Weldon Word said. "I remember one colonel I was with saying 'The Air Force doesn't have a bombing problem. Let me tell you what we did 15 years ago, in Korea. There all you had to
do was tell me which railroad ties you wanted our bombs to be placed on and we would go up and do it. That was in Korea. Think how much better we are now.' They had lost I
don't know how many airplanes trying to drop the Than Hoa bridge. The Air Force had a bombing problem, but for whatever reasons they wouldn't admit it."